The pressure for research to have practical impact is huge. And rightly so, says Komárek. He is researching how to clean up the soil

There was a time when geochemist Michael Komárek wanted to save the Earth. Nowadays, he is seeking ways to save earth – to rid the soil of pollution and improve its quality. And the need for research like his continues to grow. Komárek was raised and schooled in France, but he has settled in the Czech Republic, where he set up a brand new department at the Czech University of Life Sciences.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

He spent a part of his life in France, where he later obtained his associate professorship.

“France is a second home to me; I grew up there. I love French culture, language – and the food, of course. I’ve moved around a lot, but at the end of the day my ‘home’ home is probably here in the Czech Republic,” says Michael Komárek.

This belief stems from the fact that, eleven years ago, he was tempted by the offer to set up a new department at the Faculty of Environmental Sciences of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.

“What piqued my interest was the possibility to build something from the ground up, the whole kit and caboodle. At the same time, I was offered excellent support in terms of both staff and facilities.”

He has been profoundly influenced by his international experience, however, and wants to provide a similar opportunity for everyone – as the current Vice Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Sciences he insists that doctoral and post-doctoral students spend several months on international scholarships. “They come back as new people, with a new perspective on things, new experiences, and a different vision of science.”

Precious fertiliser

So how is Czech soil actually doing? “It’s a big media issue nowadays, but that’s perhaps an accurate reflection of reality. Soil is getting worse. Severe erosion is occurring, which means it’s losing organic matter and becoming poorer,” says Komárek.

“There isn’t enough livestock manure. If a farmer has large herds of cattle, the manure is returned to the soil, organic components get replenished, and it all works like a charm. But that’s not what happens very often these days. At the same time, the soil is steadily losing its capacity for water retention, which is becoming a huge problem.”

The forty-three-year-old scientist has been studying soil changes for almost twenty years. “Our tests clearly show, for instance, that in places where natural fertilisers from livestock are returned to the soil, the proportion of organic carbon grows in single digits every decade. This may not sound like a big deal, but an increase from 1.0 to 2.5 per cent makes an enormous difference. The soil is simply crying out for livestock manure.” 

He also says that some calculations suggest that if the proportion of organic components grew by even a few per mille, such soil could potentially do the work of the new reservoirs now being planned. “In well-maintained soils and landscapes, water can take care of itself – but the powers that be are deaf to this. Things have started to change, little by little, the proportion of organic matter seems to be gradually rising… but what with the war and the energy crisis, we have other things to worry about now… As does the whole world.” He reiterates that the main problem will be water. Soil contamination is a secondary issue.

Heavy metal mushroom scramble

“As far as contamination is concerned, unpolluted nature no longer exists anywhere. Not even in the Arctic or Svalbard. Humanity has left its mark everywhere. And the concentration of any given substance we decide to measure, wherever we do it, will always be higher than what its natural base levels used to be.”

Is there in fact any area in the Czech Republic where the soil has actually been contaminated to a dangerous degree? “There are places with relatively high contamination by metals, but – lest I sound like an alarmist – the situation is by no means critical.”

The prime example is the area around Příbram, where the soil contains lead, cadmium, and also uranium. “We’ve been doing studies on fungi, as they’re able to accumulate metals in large quantities. We’ve calculated how much scrambled egg and mushrooms picked in a given area you can safely eat.”

And the result? “If in the same week you’ve eaten two meals of egg-and-mushroom scramble from around Příbram, you’ve ingested the monthly dose of lead and cadmium set by the WHO,” he adds. Still, let’s face it, how much scrambled egg and mushroom does one eat in a year? And how much of it is made from mushrooms picked around Příbram? “There’s no need to panic or to swear off mushrooms, but it’s good be aware of the limits.” 

When sludge turns into soil-cleaner

Komárek also leads his own team (with a high proportion of international and – at the moment – female researchers) at the Department of Environmental Sciences and he is in charge of its four main projects.

Two of these explore the possibilities for using sewage sludge not only for improving soil properties, but they also identify risks related to its application.

Sewage sludge contains large amounts of nutrients. In the Czech Republic and Europe in general, sludge has been used for decades to increase the quantity of organic components and nutrients in the soil. “But the need has recently become more pressing, due to serious problems with soil erosion, which diminishes the soil’s ability to retain water. And organic components in the soil work like a sponge,” Komárek explains.

Sounds like an elegant solution, especially since Czech sewage systems alone produce around 200,000 tons of sludge a year.

Problem being, however, that beside desirable substances, sewage sludge also contains a lot of undesirable ones.

These, in addition to metals and metalloids, particularly include new contaminants or micropollutants, such as residues of pharmaceuticals (problematic are antibiotics, antidepressants, hormone disruptors, and others), illegal drugs, pesticides, but also microplastics. This is why sewage sludge has to be modified ahead of application, for example by composting.

A newly tested option for removing undesirable substances from sludge is pyrolysis, combustion without air in special ‘incinerators’. “This turns the sludge into a material similar to activated charcoal; the high temperature eliminates impurities and the resultant so-called ‘biochar’ is then mixed in with the soil,” Komárek describes.

“Our task is to test pyrolysed sludge. We’re studying sludge samples from five different water treatment plants that we’ve picked according to the size of the population centre, the surrounding environment, the structure of local industry, and so on. We’re analysing how this modified sludge behaves in the soil.”

The idea of pure, harmless charcoal dust that simply gets ploughed into the soil sounds wonderful to a layperson. But there must be a catch, surely? “The process is very costly,” Komárek shrugs. The number of pyrolysis units the Czech Republic, moreover, is rather limited. 

Their two other projects have been examining, over the long term, how pollutants – particularly metals and metalloids that end up in the soil due to a variety of human activities – can be removed from the soil using iron nanoparticles.

“We aren’t breaking new ground here: iron oxides that are naturally present in the soil environment are a highly efficient sorbent, capable of binding contaminants. Using synthetic iron nanoparticles, however, produces material with an enormous reactive surface that can trap pollution.” 

How are these nanoparticles removed from the soil, once they have picked up the undesirable metals? A layperson might think of a magnet…

“In theory that’s possible, especially when such particles are dispersed in a solution. But what we’re talking about here is often several hectares of corrupted soil, and you can’t simply run that over with a magnet. The nanoparticles can be left there, however, because they have immobilised the contaminants, which are then neither dangerous nor harmful in themselves,” he explains. 

Freedom of research vs. public demands

How important is it for Michael Komárek to translate research into practical applications? “The pressure for the application potential of research is huge, and rightly so. Freedom of research is indeed a wonderful thing, but there’s also the public demand, and that needs to be met. So even though sewage sludge, for example, is not really the main area of interest for me, we’ve also become involved in addressing these practical issues.” 

The best scenario, in his opinion, is when a researcher can combine their passion for discovery with research that leads to practical applications.

“To give you an example, my colleague Vladislav Chrastný and I are also researching pollution in Svalbard, which is a delightful and fascinating place, but it’s difficult to make the case that this research benefits Czech society,” he states dryly. “Though personally, I’m not someone who believes their scientific work is going to save the world,” he adds.

We’ve hit a dead end, my friends

There was a time, however, when he – a little idealistically, perhaps – thought quite the opposite. When he started out as a PhD student, he was looking into the possibilities of using plants for soil decontamination, through a process called phytoextraction. “And I really did think that we would, in fact, save the world,” he reminisces. Gradually he published a number of scientific papers…

“… showing that in practical terms the method simply could not work.”

In the 1990s, when talk started to revolve around phytoremediation of metal-contaminated soils, it was music to his ears. “Let’s just have plants grow there! It’ll be cheap and fairly easy to do! The sun will provide all the energy we need for the plants, plus some water to help them grow, and then the plant will extract contaminants from the soil on our behalf,” he recalls his erstwhile enthusiasm.

It turned out, however, that in highly polluted areas plants are not able to accumulate certain metals in quantities that would make any difference.

“We tried to support the process, to kick start it, mobilising undesirable substances so that plants would be able to deal with them. We tried this out in vineyards and hop gardens, where the soil is sometimes contaminated with just one single element, copper, but the long-term and overall efficiency was still low.”

Was he disappointed afterwards that he would not be saving the world?

“I wasn’t. I just had to reconsider some things and look at the issue in reverse. We were doing basic research, we weren’t looking beyond that – at practice. But by publishing results in prestigious journals, we advanced the knowledge of the scientific community a little further.”

Pointing out scientific cul-de-sacs, travelling down roads that turn out to lead nowhere, is almost as important as finding the right path.

I thought I had it in the bag

Indeed, Michael Komárek’s path to his current field was also far from direct. On the brink of adulthood, he dreamt of becoming a translator and interpreter, which was reflected in his university applications. “I was fluent in English, my French was almost at a native-speaker level, I’d graduated high school in the US, so I thought I was the bee’s knees and assumed I had it in the bag… but I landed right at the bottom of the list, among those who were rejected,” he reminisces on the first major failure in his life.

“It was a wakeup call. Eventually, life shoved me in a different direction, and – as was later apparent on several occasions – it brought me where I probably needed to be, despite having different ideas at the time,” he laughs.

He did not even consider going to university abroad: having graduated from a US high school, he wanted to study at home. Of the eight university applications he sent out, only one ultimately came through: Geology at Charles University, Faculty of Science. “As a kid, I used to collect rocks. I was interested in minerals – agates, amethysts, I was really into it… I never dreamt about a career in geology, though. It was more that I didn’t know where else to turn,” he smiles. 

He was not even nervous about the entrance exams, because he was more intent on his coveted linguistics. “When they posted the results, I was tenth out of the three hundred applicants. Well, what a jaw-dropper! So I gave it a go, hoping I might eventually get to like it. I know now that I made an excellent decision.”

Getting out there is a must

He also enjoyed chemistry. “In the third year, when we could pick a specialisation, it was the combination of geology and chemistry that appealed. Even then, I was attracted to research on contaminants in the environment, so I chose the study of lead isotopes as the topic of my thesis. And later, I did my PhD here at ‘Agro’,” he says with a sweeping gesture around his office, in one of the buildings in the campus of the Czech University of Life Sciences (CULS) in Prague’s Suchdol district.

He returned to his beloved France as a visiting scientist at the university of Limoges, where he also obtained his habilitation (he would subsequently also graduate as Associate Professor at CULS and then be appointed Professor).

He also gained experience at Western Michigan University in the USA, where he spent a few months on a Fulbright Fellowship. “There’s something good everywhere, and something less so, but the key thing is to get out there, get to know other institutions, different people, different approaches, so that you can tell the good and the bad things apart. That’s why we’ve started with compulsory foreign scholarships at our faculty.”

Czechs use all sorts of shortcuts and workarounds; but in science, it works

Would he be able to name some typical features of the French or American approach to science and research? “That, of course, requires some generalisation. French science is specific in how insular the French actually are, particularly with respect to language. But that’s been changing a lot in recent years, English is becoming a common language in scientific institutions,” he believes.

In comparison to his American experience, on the other hand, the French milieu is friendlier and more teamwork-oriented than the American one. “In America, the atmosphere is charged with intense competition. When I came over there on a Fulbright, everyone knew I wasn’t planning to stay, that I’d be going back to Europe in a while, but they still saw me as competition and treated me as such, even though I had no need to elbow anyone out of the way. 

In his opinion, Czechs are more resourceful and creative in their research. “We’re smart, we can get around a lot of things sometimes, when we need to, we know where to look for shortcuts and workarounds, and that – in the positive sense – also works in science. Some twenty years ago our labs weren’t as well-equipped as those in the West, we’d always have to find a way to make it work even without the best facilities. Things have changed now, as far as equipment is concerned. So, we’re not the least bit lagging behind, and many researchers come over to our labs to analyse their samples,” he adds. 

One thing he liked about the institutions he visited was the custom that the team leader held regular meetings with their staff, say once a fortnight over coffee, as an occasion to present interim results, discuss matters, look for alternative options, and ask questions.

“I’ve imported that. I’m trying to apply that here. It sounds trivial, but as a matter of fact it’s hugely beneficial. Moreover, I keep hearing from other institutions that people don’t even know what the head of their research actually looks like. I definitely wouldn’t want that, it’s necessary to keep in touch.”

Millions upon millions of papers

So what bothers him most about science and research? “I’d prefer to say what irritates me and stresses me out. When I first started doing research, papers would be sent to journal editors on floppy disks or CDs, everything took ages, you’d sometimes get your proofs on printouts, marked with a pen… Nowadays, everything happens terribly fast, there’s hundreds of journals, it’s all online, editors are snowed under, peer-reviewers are hard to find. Everything is a race against the clock and a fight for time. And the inflation of scientific results is enormous,” he opines.

He is himself a member of the editorial staff of several journals, such as Environmental Pollution and Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, where he has also been featured as the lead author or co-author of several major publications in recent years (he has 115 papers and approximately 5,300 citations to his credit), so he sees the situation from the other end of the publication chain, too.

“There are just thousands and thousands of papers, many of which are merely descriptive. It’s all a bit disenchanting. The system for evaluating worldwide research will either have to reform, or it’ll collapse.”

In contrast, when asked about what makes him happiest in his work, he starts talking about the achievements of his PhD students. “I don’t want to make myself out to be some huge altruist, but it’s when my students and post-docs succeed, when they defend a good thesis, when they receive prizes and grants. Or when they find a great post abroad, or when smart people with foreign experience come back later on.”

He likes to recall the times when he was ‘just doing his own research’. “I only get to go to the lab once in a while, I don’t even write as much anymore – my work is more about editing, fundraising, teaching, and organising. It’s a bit monotonous, sure, but at the same time, such an evolution is exactly how it should be.”

As we mentioned earlier, his team features plenty of women. It is also international: currently, only one of his PhD students is Czech. “Then there’s a Sri Lankan researcher, for instance, a PhD student from Nigeria, and a post-doc from France; the others include a Uganda-born Brit, a Hungarian, a Greek, and a Spaniard. Somehow our team happens to consist almost exclusively of women. I think they get a pretty decent deal here: I’ve no problem with flexible working hours, and the university runs its own nursery, too. That said, I tip my hat to them for being able to handle both cutting-edge research and their family life,” he concedes. “The best thing is when the team is very diverse. And we also want to attract Czech men and women coming back from abroad.” 

He and his wife – a psychologist working at the Faculty of Education at Charles University – are raising a six-year-old son. He would like to have more time for his hobbies. He is an amateur photographer, but he also plays the flute and the tin whistle. He has even performed at the prestigious Prague Spring Music Festival.

“There’s a tin whistle motif in The Lord of the Rings Symphony and they were looking for a Czech who could play the instrument… I can tell you, performing in the Prague Congress Centre was an incredibly stressful experience – research has got nothing on it!

The author is an editor of Deník N.
Translated by Petr Ondráček